How to Present to a Hostile Audience

Use the 5 P’s, fend off nerves, and practice empathy.

July 19, 2016

Good news is easy to deliver. Rarely will you face a hostile crowd when relaying that projected earnings doubled over the prior year or that an unexpected windfall is on its way.

Unfortunately, accounting isn’t the type of business that delivers only good news. Sometimes CPAs have to deliver disappointing financial news to clients or to the partners who run their own firms. Or maybe you’ve been tapped to give a presentation to a demanding group that may challenge your conclusions, interrupt you, or want to air grievances in front of others. If that’s the scenario you’re facing, there’s no need to panic. With the right preparation, you can navigate thorny situations and relay needed information.

Experts from within the public accounting profession and outside of it share some of their tips on how to give a presentation to a tough crowd.

1. Set your expectations upfront

The beginning of any presentation should make the ground rules clear. For example, you can maintain control of the room by asking people to hold questions until the end, said Charlene Rhinehart, a Chicago-based CPA active with pageants and the public speaking group Toastmasters. “If you don’t want people to ask questions until the end of the presentation, make that known,” Rhinehart said. “Just lay out your expectations; it helps everyone.”

Banning questions until the end of the presentation doesn’t work for all situations, though, especially if your subject matter is complex, said Ken Futch, an Atlanta-based business consultant who teaches others how to improve their presentations. Let the audience make queries that are vital to understanding the ongoing presentation, Futch said, but request they leave comments and more general queries for the end.

2. Prep your presentation extensively

Anthony Campanelli, a partner with Deloitte Financial Advisory Services LLP’s forensics and investigations team, has had to deliver negative news to clients on multiple occasions. Campanelli, a New York City-based CPA, abides by a motto known as the five P’s: “Proper planning prevents poor performance.” He often does a dry run of the presentation in his head, reviews PowerPoint slides or handout materials that he will use, and makes sure he has all the information he needs. “You never want to delay giving bad news, but you always want to make sure you have all the relevant information,” he said.

Spend time thinking about what questions the audience may have, said Andrew Baida, a Baltimore attorney. Ask a colleague to watch a run-through of your presentation and find out what questions he or she has after hearing the material, he recommended.

3. Know your audience

If you can, try to learn about the people you’ll be in front of. Does a key corporate officer loathe or adore PowerPoint slides? Would the board prefer having information ahead of time? Campanelli often talks ahead of time to subordinates of corporate officers to find out the best way to present information and pick up important context about the company. He tries to ensure that all the stakeholders who need to be in the meeting will be there. Rhinehart goes to LinkedIn to learn the names and titles of her audience, and researches the industry’s challenges.

4. Navigate hostile questions

Not every presentation will be in front of a friendly audience, and you could face someone who wants to challenge you. Futch recommends turning the questions around on the asker, a method that can be especially helpful when dealing with clients. For example, if someone asks for an opinion on a recent regulation and seems to have an opinion of his or her own, turn around and instead ask, “Why do you ask that?” Futch said. Doing so avoids alienating clients. It’s also important to stick to what you do know, according to Rhinehart. If you’re asked a question you don’t know the answer to, tell the group you’ll get back to them.

5. Be confident

More than anything, it’s important to be confident in your presentation. For Futch, that means not beginning a presentation by apologizing. To ward off nervousness, some open presentations by saying they didn’t have much time to prepare or aren’t great public speakers. That leaves the audience already unimpressed by your presentation. If anxiety overwhelms you, Futch recommends pushing your palms against each other for a few seconds and then relaxing them to burn off adrenaline. If you’re sitting on a chair, grab the sides and squeeze hard.

Campanelli handles difficult or emotional meetings with clients by remaining calm, empathetic, and confident in his own findings. In forensic investigations, clients can become defensive or want to challenge the findings that he and his team uncovered. “I need to always remain poised and controlled and not to engage in any sort of argumentative approach,” he said. He deals with upset clients by recognizing how the client might feel, to help reduce tensions during the presentation.

Sarah Ovaska-Few is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article, contact Chris Baysden, senior manager of newsletters at the AICPA.

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